Lord Rennard debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Mon 25th Apr 2022
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Report stage: Part 2
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Report stage & Report stage: Part 1
Thu 17th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Tue 15th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 10th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2

Parliamentary Democracy in the United Kingdom

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Tuesday 25th April 2023

(10 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, it is not without irony when this Chamber discusses our democracy. Many people recognise that we often do a very good job here, a much better job than the Commons, of scrutinising legislation. There, MPs are hardly given the time to look at most of it. A second Chamber is therefore needed. However, when we ask MPs to think again, our carefully considered views are too often ignored by government and the overpowerful executive branch imposes its will on MPs.

The preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 promised that we would move from membership here being based on the hereditary principle to the popular principle. We are still waiting for that reform 112 years later, although the coalition Government made a brave attempt at it, winning support from MPs by a majority of 462 to 124 for the Second Reading of a Bill which, if enacted, would by now have meant at least two rounds of elections for Members of this place. This failure came despite commitment to reform having been included in all three main UK parties’ manifestos at the previous general election.

As the parties now prepare their next manifestos, I hope they will pledge to stop the process of electing more hereditary peers, make the recommendations of the House of Lords Appointments Commission binding and spell out their proposals for proper reform here. The House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 would not be a bad start. The manifestos should also include proposals to ensure that we have an electoral system which means that when people vote in a general election, they get the MPs they vote for. Just 43% of those who voted in 2019 gave the Conservative Party an 80-seat majority. A more representative Parliament would have prevented much of what has gone wrong since then.

Public Duty Costs Allowance

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Monday 21st November 2022

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Asked by
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to revise the Public Duty Costs Allowance for former Prime Ministers.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
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My Lords, the public duty costs allowance assists former Prime Ministers who remain active in public life. The allowance is not paid directly to former Prime Ministers; rather, claims may be made from the allowance to reimburse incurred expenses that arise from the fulfilment of public duties, such as office and secretarial costs. The allowance has been frozen at an annual limit of £115,000 since 2011. The Government keep these matters under review.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, we have a rapidly increasing number of ex-Prime Ministers. Three of them continue to sit as MPs. While Theresa May claims only a part of the ex-Prime Minister’s allowance, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are entitled to claim up to £115,000 a year for as long as they say they are doing public duties, which may be for the rest of their lives. This is in addition to MPs’ office costs allowance, which is subject to some public scrutiny, unlike the ex-Prime Ministers’ allowance. They are also able to earn from speeches, books and newspaper articles. Is it not time that we had a proper review of these allowances? We have reduced it for sitting MPs and made it for a fixed period only.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, hitherto this allowance has been the subject of cross-party consensus. Of course, it was introduced by the Conservative Government to update the arrangements at the time of the late Baroness Thatcher’s retirement and has been claimed since 2013 by several former Prime Ministers. However, no claims have been received from Boris Johnson or Liz Truss in relation to the PDCA; nor has any indication been given that claims will be made.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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I support the noble and learned Lord’s amendments. I will be as brief as humanly possible, first because of his brilliant and forensic analysis of where we are and the importance of the amendments and, secondly, because there has been a tendency over recent times for noble Lords to filibuster their own amendments—I have seen it again and again. Therefore, I just want to comment on the second part of the amendments before us, the recusing of Ministers in dealing with the statement drawn up by the Secretary of State.

The Minister, in dealing with this element, talked about elected Members having traditionally been on the commission. I do not dispute that for a minute, but we are back to where we were when debating this earlier in the week: there seems to be a sad misunderstanding of the difference between Government and Parliament, and the role of Ministers representing a Government dominated by a political party and the role of elected Members, and therefore the commission, in carrying out their duties independently. This is a substantial constitutional matter; I am sorry that there are not more Members in the Chamber to hear it because, obviously, the troops outside will be rallied at the appropriate moment. Given that this is so fundamental to the way in which we conduct our democracy, election processes, and therefore the transparency and trust that people should expect, I believe that we should vote on this tonight. I am surprised that the Minister has not been able to convince his colleagues in the other place that they have got this very badly wrong. I promise them that it will come back to bite them.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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I speak to Motion B1. We have already agreed in this House that compulsory photo ID at polling stations is not necessary. At no stage in any of our debates have the Government presented any evidence that compulsory photo ID is necessary, or proportionate, to what they try to claim is a risk of impersonation. In fact, there is proof that impersonation at the polling station is not a significant problem. The number of replacement ballot papers issued in the last general election, mostly because of a clerical error in crossing off the wrong name, was just 1,341 out of over 32 million ballot papers issued. That is an average of two replacement ballot papers in each constituency, or just one for every 30 polling stations. Mostly, they were issued due to clerical error, not fraud. Therefore, spending £180 million over the next 10 years to make photo ID a requirement to be allowed to vote is wholly disproportionate and unnecessary.

In an earlier debate, it was stated by a Minister that if someone claimed your vote, they had stolen it and you could not get it back. However, the replacement ballot paper system means that this is not the case. Unlike someone stealing a parcel of yours at the Post Office, you can get a replacement ballot paper if one has already been issued in your name and an investigation is made, if necessary.

The Minister referred to Northern Ireland and the recent increase in turnout, which I am sure is not due to the popularity of photo ID. If we look back to when photo ID first came in for the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election, we see that estimates were that around 25,000 voters did not vote because they did not have the required ID, and almost 3,500 people—2.3% of the electorate—were initially turned away for not possessing the required ID. There are 20 times as many people in Great Britain, so you can do the maths.

However, there is a sensible alternative to the Government’s proposals. It should be seen as a sensible compromise. It would safely address any legitimate concern that the Government claim to have about impersonation at the polling station. Perhaps significantly, it would also fulfil what was in the Conservative Party’s manifesto in 2019.

In addition to the documents considered acceptable to the Government as proof of identity, there is a document already issued to every voter by the official electoral registration officer. That document is the official polling card. In the local election pilots conducted under the Government’s own rules, the poll card was deemed an acceptable form of voter ID in some council areas and was chosen by 93% of voters where it was an option. This compares with 5% choosing to use their driving licence and 1% choosing their passport. Most significantly, the number of voters turned away from polling stations was half the level of that in areas requiring photo ID. That is the real point of the Electoral Commission’s analysis of those pilots.

Every voter on the electoral register is issued with a polling card. There is therefore no additional cost in making it an acceptable form of ID. A fraudster would have not just to impersonate someone at a polling station but to have stolen their poll card in advance. In the unlikely event of it being stolen, it could be replaced, and someone using the original could be arrested at the polling station for using it. So let us offer this compromise from this House. It offers greater security but no discrimination and no great expensive additional bureaucracy.

I believe that we do not require substantial further debate on this issue tonight, but we do need to act to prevent abuse of a majority in the other place.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, I will not say very much about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I wish to concentrate on that in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. All I will say is that I think we need identity cards in this country, full stop.

I feel very troubled tonight. At Second Reading, I made it quite plain that I was strongly opposed to Clauses 14 and 15. I made a similar comment in Committee. On Monday, I was glad to be able to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, when, along with nine or 10 Conservative colleagues, I voted for the amendments in the name of the noble and learned Lord to delete those two clauses.

I am troubled because, frankly, although I accept the good intentions of the Minister, my noble friend Lord True—his integrity is not in any doubt whatever—I do not think that tinkering will really meet the points that were made by those of us who wanted to delete the clauses. It is not for me to say that we should insist, because it is very much the noble and learned Lord’s amendment and he has made his decision, which, again, I respect totally. However, faced with a choice between tinkering and tinkering, I personally think that we have missed the opportunity to put this Bill in order by deleting two clauses that are fraught with danger to our constitution and election system.

The best we can hope for now is really scrupulous post-legislative scrutiny to see how this works out—it is essential that that happens—but we are put under a degree of pressure. Although this is the first stage of ping-pong on this Bill, when I came in this morning, all the robes for Prorogation were hanging up. The Government are clearly determined to prorogue Parliament tomorrow and not to use time later this week—which could have been used—or next week for a battle. I therefore find myself very much in the position of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, at an earlier stage today, when he praised the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, but said, “Really, the time has come”. I believe it is quite clear that the time has come for the end of this Session of Parliament. It is not one that will go down in the history books as a Session of glory or a Session that has enhanced the democratic credentials of government. It will not go down in history as a Session that has seen our country maintain its staunch defence of the rule of law, as it has done in the past, but that is where we are.

Frankly, the most honourable thing I can do tonight is not to vote. I believe that we should have deleted the clauses, but we have not done so. We gave the Commons an opportunity to delete the clauses, but they completely spurned us. They are entitled to do that, but I do not necessarily think that they were wise in taking the line they took. However, that is the line they took, and it is the line they will take if the amendments in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, are passed tonight.

We should just mark this as a pretty sad episode and, as I say, scrutinise the legislation once it is on the statute book. We will need to come back to these issues. We must make absolutely sure that the Electoral Commission is not trammelled in its work and is able, as similar bodies in other democratic countries are, to ensure that our elections are scrupulously controlled, totally impartial and never subject to the whims of any political party—right, left or centre. This is a sad day for me, but that is the conclusion I have reached.

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Moved by
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard
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At end insert “and do propose Amendment 86B in lieu—

86B: Page 79, line 44, at end insert—
“(1HA) In this rule a “specified document” also means an official poll card issued by the returning officer for the election at which the voter intends to vote.””
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved by
48: Clause 19, leave out Clause 19
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, after a long debate on a substantive issue, this will probably be a rather shorter, more technical debate. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, from the Labour Front Bench, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, from the Greens, for supporting the amendment to delete Clause 19 in Committee. I am also grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, and his team for engaging on this issue of accounting for election expenditure in constituencies. The Government’s position appears to be that no change in law is proposed. I therefore think that Clause 19 is unnecessary. The Government say that it is about clarification, but I think this has been provided by the courts and that guidance from the Electoral Commission—provided it remains independent—should suffice.

The Government blame confusion about the rules for election spending in constituencies for the prosecution of the Conservative candidate, the Conservative agent and a senior Conservative HQ staff member following the campaign in South Thanet during the 2015 general election. However, it does not address the widespread concern after that election that the basic principles of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which first provided a level playing field in constituency election campaigns, were being subverted in that election.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, as noble Lords will know, Clause 19 is there to clarify the law on benefits in kind and make it clear that candidates need to report only benefits in kind that they have actually used or which they or their election agent have directed, authorised or encouraged someone else to use on their behalf. We had some discussion on this in Committee, as the noble Lord acknowledges. This was already widely understood to be true, prior to the Supreme Court judgment in R v Mackinlay and others. The Supreme Court judgment has led to concerns that candidates and agents could be responsible for spending they had not consented to or were unaware of or not involved in. This is an unacceptable situation and risks a chilling effect on people willing to put themselves forward as candidates and agents.

The noble Lord has been so kind as to refer to the positive engagement we had and I thank him for his continued interest in and engagement on the topic. In response to some of the concerns he raised, including those raised again today, I am happy to provide clarity on the government position. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked two specific questions and I can say to him that the Government are absolutely committed to the long-standing principle of a level playing field for general election campaigns, whether in campaigning being carried out at constituency level or nationally. The noble Lord referred to a statement made by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham in 2019 when agreeing with the importance of the principle of a level playing field in relation to spending at elections. The Government maintain the commitment my noble friend gave; nothing in the Bill seeks to undermine that principle.

The proposals in the Bill will not change the fundamental principle that party spending in support of a particular candidate in a local area falls to be recorded as candidate spending against the local limit. Instead, the clauses bring forward changes seeking to maintain the level playing field by ensuring that all candidates and agents across the political spectrum are clear and confident in their legal responsibilities. Clause 19 also makes an equivalent amendment to the same rules for other types of campaigners, such as political parties and third-party campaigners, to ensure that the rules are consistent. We believe that these changes will bring much-needed reassurance and clarity to candidates and their agents on the rules which apply to notional expenditure for reserved elections. In combination with expanded statutory guidance—which we will discuss shortly—from the Electoral Commission on this matter provided for in Clause 20, this measure will support compliance with the rules and ensure that those wishing to participate in public life can feel confident doing so, clear in their obligations.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked a further and very specific question. I can say to him that the Government are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to campaigning in South Thanet in 2015. However, the Supreme Court’s judgment in 2018 related specifically to the consideration of a particular point of law and concluded that there was no requirement for authorisation in Section 90(3) of the 2000 Act, which was contrary to the understanding of many and led to concerns about what expenses could potentially be incurred on a candidate’s behalf even without their knowledge. As a result, there have been calls from across the political spectrum for clarification of those rules. A cross-party committee of MPs, PACAC and the Law Commission have called for clarity on the rules in recent reports. The changes enacted by the Bill will only clarify the law so that it can be commonly understood. As I said, any uncertainty could lead to a democratic chilling effect, with candidates and election agents, who are often volunteers and fearful of their personal circumstances, unwilling to expose themselves to risk.

Finally, it is important to note that Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already prohibits “local” third-party spending over £700 which has not been “authorised in writing”; therefore, it requires specific authorisation. Where such spending is authorised by a candidate, the candidate must also report on the spending incurred by the third party. If a third party, which could include a political party, spends over that threshold without authorisation, an offence has been committed. The Elections Bill does not alter this. Where a third party, including a political party, has provided property, goods and services free of charge or at a discount, or has made use of property, this must be recorded as a notional expense.

I can assure the noble Lord on those points that we are absolutely committed to the assurance my noble friend gave and that we are not acting in response to the judgment of Southwark Crown Court in 2019 in relation to 2015 and the issues of uncertainty that have arisen. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will accept those assurances and be ready to withdraw his amendment that would remove this clause from the Bill.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for those warm words and his reassurance, and for his engagement and that of his officials on this important issue of election law. We have certainly made great progress on the issue since we began discussing what may happen in relation to notional expenditure and the original Private Member’s Bill, but I take from everything that he says, when he refers to clarification following the Supreme Court judgment, that any court in future would say that nothing in this clause should be taken as a change in the law.

I remain unconvinced that it is necessary but I am pleased that the Minister, in his correspondence, particularly that to all Members of the House on 4 April—if I may paraphrase slightly what he said—made it clear that there is no get out of jail free card for a candidate or agent who encourages excessive spending in a constituency and simply relies on the claim not to have authorised it. The word “encouraging” is quite significant in how that may be taken in a court in future should there be controversy over election expenses. It means that there cannot be a nod and a wink to expenditure in the cause of winning a constituency without accepting that such expenditure must be specifically authorised, to a £700 limit, for a third party. An election agent who told their HQ that they were delivering a leaflet with the local volunteers over the weekend so it would be convenient if two coachloads of paid activists could come on Wednesday and Thursday would certainly be encouraging illegal spending, as would providing them with maps and assisting them with their dining and hotel arrangements when they came to canvass or deliver in the constituency.

In my view, it remains a loophole that we must examine at another time that parties can post huge quantities of direct mail to a constituency aimed at influencing the vote there but claim that it is nothing to do with the local candidate. However, given that the Electoral Commission should retain its independence to advise on such matters, and that such advice could again be evidence in court, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 48 withdrawn.
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Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock
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My Lords, this amendment was not tabled in Committee. This is the first time we have looked at it. It addresses recent concerns that have been raised around non-dom status and donations from non-doms. I thought it was important that this was acknowledged during our discussions on the Bill.

The Labour Party believes that non-dom status should be abolished. We have recently made that very clear. We believe that there should instead be a modern scheme for people who are genuinely living in the UK for short periods. We want to address the fact that we can have small group of high-income people who live in the UK and are able to access non-dom status. We do not believe that they should be able to continue to avoid paying UK tax on their overseas income for up to 15 years, as is currently possible with the system we have at the moment.

We believe we should look at the systems in other countries and put in place something similar that is suitable for our country. For example, Japan, France and Canada have much better systems in place, where genuinely temporary residents who are here for short periods would not pay tax on overseas income gains, but that would not be possible for those who are here much longer.

This would bring about a clear, simple system. If we look at what we are doing at the moment, the rules are around 200 years old. It also means that the domicile is passed down through people’s fathers. It seems extraordinary that we still work by those laws. Surely it needs to be properly looked at and considered. I understand that HMRC has to use four complicated flow charts just to determine someone’s domicile. We have been talking about simplifying electoral law; this is something else that clearly needs looking at and simplifying.

We think that a temporary tax regime for residents would work. It would provide some tax advantages, but only for short periods of time, unlike the way the system is at the moment. Fundamentally, we believe that if you make your home in Britain long-term, you should pay tax here on all your income.

We are also concerned that the current system prevents non-doms investing their foreign income in the UK, as bringing it here means that it then becomes liable for UK tax, so there is no advantage for them to do so. That means that non-doms who earn income in tax havens and other low-tax jurisdictions would face a large financial penalty if they attempted to bring that income here to the UK. We do not believe that this is good for business; we should be encouraging more investment in the UK through these wealthy people.

We are aware that the Government have a business investment relief scheme which is intended to fix this, but we do not believe that it is working properly. The latest figures show that less than 1% of non-doms invest their overseas income in the UK in any given year, and that cannot be good for UK business. In addition, if we made these changes, it would bring us into line with other major economies. The UK is one of the only large economies which has these arrangements. As I have said before, France and Canada, for example, have different regimes, as does Germany.

This issue needs serious consideration. The Government need to address it and the Elections Bill provides an opportunity to do so. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response. However, because this is such an important matter and it needs to be dealt with, if I do not hear from the Minister serious ways in which it can be addressed, I will consider testing the opinion of the House.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, elections and donations are about choice. People who have non-dom status choose not to pay their tax here and, while they have this status, they live abroad for more than nine months of the year. The fundamental question raised by this amendment is: should they be able to donate the perhaps millions of pounds which they save in taxes by being non-doms to a political party, for example, which might want to preserve that beneficial tax status for them? In other words, we might connect the two principles of being able to give millions to a party and benefit by not paying millions which other people might consider are owed in taxes.

There are a number of occasions in our debates when we say that what we are doing is asking the other place to think again. However, we are not, on this principle, asking the other place or even this House to think again. The legislation which said that non-doms should not be able to donate to political parties was passed by both Houses in 2009. So we are not asking anyone to think again; we are simply asking for the legislation, passed with the approval of both Houses, to be implemented. Since 2010, various excuses have been put forward as to why this has been supposedly difficult or impractical, even though it was approved by Parliament. Essentially, the excuse provided is that the HMRC says, “Well, all tax issues are confidential, so you can’t implement this”. However, a form of declaration accompanying any donation, saying, “I am not a non-dom, so I am entitled to donate”, might well suffice and fit the bill. If you were making a false declaration, that could be an offence.

However, I do not really accept the HMRC’s argument—or rather, the Government’s argument put forward on behalf of the HMRC. For example, when Parliament said that if you are a higher-rate taxpayer, you should not benefit from child benefit—which I think was a fair measure—you needed to sign a declaration to the HMRC saying, “Someone in this household pays a higher rate of tax, so I can’t receive child benefit”. Why, therefore, can you not sign a declaration saying, “Someone in this household is a non-dom and therefore cannot donate to a political party”?

This debate is really about some of the fundamental parts of the Bill. The extension of the right to vote beyond 15 years is not really going to extend voting rights for very many people. For the reasons I outlined at Second Reading and will not go through again, the postal vote system, needed by most people who vote overseas, is so slow that very few votes would count in a general election. However, through this Bill the ability to donate unlimited amounts of money is being extended to a lot of people, including non-doms. A little earlier today, when discussing a technical aspect of the Bill, the Minister kindly confirmed that the Government’s position is very much to maintain a level playing field at local constituency level and nationally. However, I do not believe that this is happening. This extension of the right to vote is more about the right to donate, and should not be applied to non-doms.

In December 2020, the Government said that they wanted to increase the national expenditure limits for political parties in a general election “in line with inflation”. In 2000, Parliament agreed that there should be a level playing field between the main parties in elections. The principle was very much that it had to be a level playing field, not that each of the parties should be able to spend up to £20 million. If we increase that £20 million limit, or thereabouts, by the rate of inflation since 2000, that is a 79% increase. Therefore, the national expenditure limit, if increased in line with inflation since 2000, would go up for the Conservative Party, for example, from almost £20 million to almost £36 million. Where is that extra £16 million going to come from? Much of it will come from overseas donors, many of whom are non-doms. I do not think that this appeals to the British sense of fair play, and it should not happen.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I fear that I am not going to be able to allow the noble Baroness to remain in her seat for the rest of the evening. The Government cannot agree to these provisions, which seek to bring into practice a provision from the 2009 Act regarding donations from non-resident donors. Noble Lords will recall that in Committee, my noble friend Lord Howe replied to the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on this same uncommenced provision.

The Government’s position on the matter remains unchanged, but it is important briefly to place on record the reasons why. The Government have no current plans to bring into force the uncommenced provision, Section 10, regarding donations from non-resident donors. It would be extremely difficult to make the provision work, as the Electoral Commission warned in 2009 when the Bill was going through Parliament. The coalition Government, in which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was influential, did not implement it between 2010 and 2015. The fundamental issue is that it is not workable, given that an individual’s tax status is subject legally to confidentiality. It would therefore be difficult or even impossible for the Electoral Commission, political parties, which would face fines for this, and other campaigners accurately to determine whether a donor met the test set out in Section 10.

I acknowledge that the Labour Party has come forward. I do not wish to get into a debate about the Labour Party’s fiscal proposals—that is slightly outside the scope of the Bill—but I know that Sir Keir will send a thank you letter to the noble Baroness for having raised this issue. Our principle, basically, is that taxation is not the basis of enfranchisement in the UK. As a British citizen is able to vote in an election for a political party, they should be able to donate, subject to requirements for transparency in donations, which we have discussed. There is also a precedent whereby those who do not pay income tax rightly remain entitled to vote. A lot of low-paid people do not pay income tax, but they have a legitimate right to vote. I know that perceptions differ on this issue. I remind the House that on two occasions, in 2009 and 2013, the Electoral Commission warned about the practical implications of the policy. For these reasons, and because of the duty of confidentiality in taxation, which would have to be overridden by other legislation, the Government cannot support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

Elections Bill

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Lord Woolley of Woodford Portrait Lord Woolley of Woodford (CB)
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My Lords, having hurried in here, I am now out of breath. We seem to have caused a bit of a stir with the first round of amendments, but what I liked was that our fiery debate was very respectful. We all have our own opinions, which are very strong from time to time, but I really liked how respectful it was. During the last round of debates, I spent a lot of my time trying to save people from either falling off the register or not voting, if that makes sense. With the amendment I now put to the House, I want to do the opposite.

I want to do something that is so incredible that we will be remembered in history for what we do tonight, if noble Lords agree to my amendment. Rather than lose 2 million voters, which we fought about on the previous amendment, tonight we can send a signal to ensure that 9 million people who are not on the voting register are put on and have a voice. It will be unprecedented and we will make history. We can do it. I hope that noble Lords will seize this opportunity and go and tell friends and family. I have been told to finish, so I beg to move.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, a couple of minutes after I thought I might have to rise to move the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, I rise to support it. With between 6 million and 9 million people missing from electoral registers or incorrectly registered, something is clearly wrong.

Surveys by the Electoral Commission show that 60% of people think, incorrectly, that the registration process happens automatically and that they do not need to do anything. Registering is not just about the right to vote; it is about making yourself available for jury service and being able to obtain credit. The Government maintain that there should be an opt-in principle to the right to vote, but there is no opt-in principle for healthcare, education or support from the emergency services, nor do the Government expect you to opt in to paying tax, so you should not have to opt in to the right to vote.

Automatic voter registration would cut the cost of existing registration processes and reduce red tape and bureaucracy, all things which the Government would normally say that they want to support. Introducing it would free up resources to focus on those who are still unregistered, which is also something the Government say that they want to do, but are they worried that the wrong people may then be able to vote? That is not a very democratic principle, but it is one trumpeted by Republicans in the United States.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I had the pleasure of introducing this amendment in Committee and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who has been the proponent of this throughout, was able to be here on Report and provide such a powerful introduction. I raised one practical point previously: how hard it is for people to check if they are on the roll. The Minister said she was going to write to me about that, and I look forward to her letter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, is not in her place now, but in Committee she stressed the way in which automatic voter registration would be helpful to poor and marginalised communities, particularly Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We should keep that in mind, and also the words in Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, who noted that the impact assessment is to ensure that those who are entitled to vote should always be able to use that right—that is the Government’s stated aim for the Bill.

After those brief words, I will repeat three words said by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in his introduction: “seize this opportunity”. I think he was speaking then to voters, but that it is a great message to leave with your Lordships’ House: seize this opportunity for democracy.

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Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, I support my noble friend on the Opposition Benches. I did indeed have my own Bill: the Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill. It had its First Reading on 5 July 2017, its Second Reading on 19 July 2019 and then it ran out of time. I am not going to repeat the speech I made then, but I have done a bit of research, otherwise it is all assertion.

I was born 85 years ago and, in that year, in this very Chamber, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved an amendment that is almost identical to the one we are debating today. He referred to the fact that in days gone by

“Peers were regarded as powerful potentates and had a number of special privileges accord to them.”

He said that if noble Lords were to do any research, they would find out that, in 1642, The Privileges of the Baronage of England declared no end of privileges. Indeed, you could have your own chaplain and, if you were married, there were special provisions for your wives and children. Since those days, there have been a few changes. Lord Ponsonby went on to point out:

“Practically all the privileges I can think of have been dropped. It now remains for the restrictions and disabilities to be dropped too. We must recognise that we live in a democratic age”—


this was in 1936—

“and just as we desire no advantages for ourselves personally or for our positions we, at the same time, do not wish that there should be any restrictions or disabilities placed upon us. I want to make it perfectly clear, my Lords, that I do not want to raise the question of the reform of the House of Lords.”—[Official Report, 12/2/1936; col. 537.]

Nor does my noble friend opposite and nor do I. It is pretty clear that almost as long ago as a century, those disabilities and interests that were once there no longer applied.

It is also true that the vast majority of us work hard for those in our constituencies when there is a general election. We live in a constituency, we look after the local people in those constituencies, and all of us are involved in all sorts of clubs and followings in our constituencies, so nobody can say that we do not take part in elections. We take part in local elections and any other elections, but for some extraordinary reason, because of this ball and chain that is left over from the 17th century, we cannot take part in general elections. Here we are now, with us in this House, prisoners and lunatics all in one bag. I do not think that is acceptable.

I conclude with these thoughts. First, we do not vote on the Budget. We do not have the power to vote on taxation. To me, that is crucial. Secondly, there have been precedents. In 1909, Irish Peers were given the right to vote. Today, the Lords spiritual have the right to vote in general elections. They sit on their Bench in your Lordships’ House and they vote. What is the difference?

People say that one Lord voting will make no difference, but have a look at the register, as I have done. I remind your Lordships that in 1997 Winchester was won by the Liberal Democrats, and by how many votes?

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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Two votes.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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Two votes. The noble Lord is quite right. I do not know whether any noble Lords from the Welsh Benches are here, but in 1974 Carmarthen was won by Labour by three votes. My dear friend Harmar Nicholls—a man who had more tight elections than anybody else—again won by three votes. If you are lucky enough to have three Lords in a constituency, that could make a huge difference. The Liberal Democrats probably would not have won Winchester if two Lords had lived there.

I repeat that this has nothing at all to do with reform of the House of Lords. It is just about individual liberty and responsibility. We all support our local communities, as I mentioned. In return, I wish to go with my wife to vote at the polling station. I do not want to stand outside while she goes in; I want to vote alongside her. I believe it is my democratic right, which I was given to implement and which I exercised from the age of 18 until 1997. It is vital, and I hope very much that other noble Lords will take us over this final fence. After all, if the Irish Peers were made an exception, why do we not join the Irish community as well?

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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, of course has a very interesting family history on this subject. I might perhaps suggest that his view is not quite correct. I think that if he was granted the right to vote, he would still have the right to resign from this House and stand as a candidate. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Thurso was once a Member of this House, then left this House, stood for election to Parliament and was elected as an MP. Then he lost his seat as an MP and came back to this House after a by-election of hereditary Peers. So the issue is not quite so simple.

We are talking about 800 people being added to an electoral register of 47 million, so I say to the Government that they should not have too much to fear from those 800 people being added, especially as quite a few of the 800 might vote for their party. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that there are only a number of issues which we can really send back to the elected MPs. I personally think that issues such as the 6 million to 9 million people not on the register or incorrectly registered are much more important than 800 Peers and we may subject ourselves to some ridicule in the other place if we are seen to be prioritising our votes as Peers in a general election. If it happens and the Government accede, I will not be unhappy—I would quite like to have a say in electing somebody who will have a vote on budgetary matters and who might become the Prime Minister—but it is not an issue that I would personally want to press to a vote on this occasion, because I think there are more important priorities, particularly for this House at this stage of the Bill.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I shall speak very briefly to Amendment 42. First, I have huge admiration for my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I recognise the history of campaigning on these issues. A lot of interesting points have been made this evening, but given the hour, I just want to say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Stansgate for providing his context and family experience. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says. This is a very interesting debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Elections Bill

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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I thank the noble Baroness but, as she knows, I have been here listening to all the debates. This is the first time I have introduced amendments, so I have to explain them. If I do not, nobody will understand what I am saying. Because I am putting an argument contrary to that generally put forward in the context of this clause, let me continue.

My amendments say that the Electoral Commission should provide everybody with an ID card that has to contain some very simple facts, which we all have. Amendment 4 says

“address … date of birth, and … NHS number”.

BAME, white or black and whatever religion, we all have an NHS number. When I call up for anything, the hospital asks for my date of birth and knows immediately who I am. NHS number and date of birth should be sufficient to identify anybody. If you have the address, you will be able to see which is the nearest polling booth.

I recently had my fourth jab. To make an appointment for it, I had a text message from the NHS. It took me five minutes to book myself a jab, with the location and time all in a simple text message. It is not difficult. People will be able to find out where and when they can vote as long as they have this ID card.

Since my time is being rationed, I urge people to vote for this because it will simplify the voting procedure and remove the problem that somehow this special class of untouchables who are called BAME people will be frightened by this. Nobody needs to be frightened by this; everybody would receive an ID card.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, this House can spend a great deal of time discussing the meaning of a single word. Words such as “may” or “must” have great significance in law, and today we are debating the difference between compulsory “photo identification” and just “voter identification”. We are debating the word “photo”.

It is important for many people because voter identification was in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, while “photo identification” was not, and manifesto commitments may be treated differently by Members of the House. In Committee the Government’s position appeared to be that the word “photo” was irrelevant or that whoever wrote their manifesto was careless and used sloppy wording, but the Government know the difference between “photo ID” and “voter ID”.

How do we know that for certain? Because the Government specifically legislated for different forms of ID requirement when they introduced pilot schemes in 15 local authority areas in 2018 and 2019. In the 2019 pilots, the Government legislated for different rules in 10 different authorities. In two areas people had to show a specified form of photo ID. In five areas they could choose to show either a specified form of photo ID or two pieces of specified non-photo ID. In three areas people could show either their poll card, which does not have a photo, or a specified form of photo ID. So the Government understand the difference between different forms of voter ID, including those which require a photo and those which do not. Their manifesto did not mention “photo”.

As the highly regarded expert from the Electoral Integrity Project, Professor Toby James, pointed out on Twitter the other day, the fact that the manifesto did not specify photo ID means that we should “allow non-photographic” ID as in many other countries, or allow those without the requisite ID at the time to be vouched for by someone accompanying them who does have it, as in Canada.

Many of the references made by Ministers to photo ID in other countries have been very misleading. That is because everybody already has a compulsory national ID card in almost all the rest of Europe, so there is no extra barrier to voting by requiring one to be presented at a polling station there.

It is ironic that, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has just pointed out, one of the main reasons we do not have national ID cards in the UK is because Conservative Members of this House opposed attempts by the Blair Government to introduce them on the grounds that they were not specifically mentioned in the Labour manifesto. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. National ID cards were not in the Labour manifesto, so this House blocked their introduction. Compulsory photo ID at polling stations was not in the Conservative manifesto, so the Government’s attempt to abuse their majority in the other place to change election rules should be prevented here.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, highlighted what the former chair of the Conservative Party, the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, said in the report which the Government commissioned from him—that

“The Government should consider the options for electors to have to produce personal identification before voting at polling stations. There is no need to be over elaborate … measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills”.—[Official Report, 21/3/22; col. 695.]


Utility bills do not have photos.

There is, however, one form of voter ID eminently suitable for the purpose—the official poll card. Making poll cards an acceptable form of ID is proposed in both Amendments 6 and 7, and these amendments are both compatible with Amendment 8, which includes many other forms of possible ID. A polling card is issued to every voter by electoral registration officers. Anyone impersonating a voter would not just have to expose themselves to risk at the polling station, but they would have to steal the poll card as well prior to going to vote. If a polling card was stolen, a replacement could be issued, and a note made to question anyone turning up at a polling station with the original poll card.

In the pilots in 2018, poll cards were allowed in both Swindon and Watford. In Swindon, 95% of voters used their poll card, 4% their driving licence and 3% their passport. In Watford, 87% used their poll card, 8% their driving licence and 3% their debit card. Altogether across the two local authority areas, 69 replacement poll cards had to be issued. In Swindon a vouching or attestation scheme was also used, and 107 voters used this option.

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I conclude by saying once again that I wish a cross-party view of this had been sought and agreed on the basis of evidence. The Bill does bear the stamp of partisanship, and cross-party agreement on issues such as these is much better than a one-sided approach.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, there is a problem with permanent postal votes, and it is a problem for which I am partly responsible. It is the issue of matching the signatures on the applications to vote by post with the certificate that goes with the ballot papers when they are sent off. That arose from an amendment for which I was responsible quite some years ago, when my concern was to reduce the prevalence of postal vote fraud. I thought it was important to have matching signatures on the application to vote by post and the certificate on the ballot paper. But I have some reservations about what will happen if we end permanent postal votes. It may mean you get a fresh signature on the application that can be compared with the certificate that goes with the ballot paper, and the problem at the minute for which I am partly responsible is that, very often, the signature is deemed not to match the signature on the application to vote by post. Sometimes this is because, as people get older, their handwriting changes, and large numbers of postal votes are rejected. There is a problem and a case for people re-registering.

My fear is that if we stop the system of automatic postal votes, trying to get people to renew their postal vote applications will favour the richest parties with the biggest databases, which are more able to contact people by post and ask them to re-register. Mitigating against that will be the new system for applying to vote by post online, and I very much welcome that. But I wonder if the Minister might be able to tell us how you can maintain a system of verifying signatures on an application to vote by post and a certificate that accompanies the ballot paper—and do so online.

I also wonder, for the millions of people who choose to vote by post, when their three-year limit comes to an end, how they will be told that they have to apply again to vote by post. It seems that one letter in the post would not be enough. We need an extensive government communication campaign to tell people that if they wish to apply to vote by post, they need to do so and to reapply by the end of their three-year limit.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I will be very brief, because we need to make progress. I just say that, clearly, we are aware that there have been issues with postal vote fraud, and it is important the Government do everything they can to tackle this. However, I understand the concerns so clearly laid out by my noble friend Lady Quin, who makes some good points about potential unintended consequences of these changes. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response and his reassurance on these matters.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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No. As the House knows, nothing distresses me more in life than disappointing my erstwhile colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I am afraid that I must. This is a simple disagreement. The Government’s view is that the first past the post system is simple, clear and effective. Reference has been made to our manifesto. It said:

“We will continue to support the first past the post system of voting … both locally and nationally.”


Clause 12 supports the first past the post system for local elections—for elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and for the Mayor of London, combined authority and local authority mayors. It moves these to the simple majority voting system. In 1998, the referendum question in London was simply:

“Are you in favour of the Government’s proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly?”


There was no great ringing endorsement of proportional representation.

We had a thorough and invigorating debate in Committee on this matter. I did not agree with all of it and I suspect some of your Lordships did not agree with me. We want to move on. We have a difference of opinion. It is clear that using the first past the post voting system for these elections will displease some Members of your Lordships’ House but we are committed to supporting it. I regret to remind people that, in 2011, the public expressed a clear preference when two-thirds voted in favour of retaining first past the post. I am afraid that I will again disappoint the Green group, but that was a fact. There was support for PR in only 10 of 440 voting areas or, to put it the other way, 430 of 440 voting areas supported first past the post. As such, I do not believe there is any merit in holding—

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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It is so often said that PR was defeated in 2011. The simple fact is that PR was not on the ballot paper. We must not repeat that falsehood about our electoral systems. That was, of course, a vote about Members of Parliament and not about mayoral systems. In relation to the London mayoral system in particular, there was a consultation which showed that most people were against first past the post. The results of that consultation were made known before the referendum vote.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I have not read as many volumes on proportional voting systems as the noble Lord. I simply repeat that 430 out of 440 voting areas supported first past the post in 2011.

It is clear from points brought forward in our debate that alternative voting methods can be confusing and not easily understood. In September 2021, the Government responded to the Electoral Commission’s report on the London mayoral elections. The figures are that 114,201 first ballots were rejected and, of second preferences, 265,353 were invalidated. We have heard that this was all because the form was difficult, badly designed and so on and so forth. This is not a system which it is easy for the electorate to understand. We have heard that only 4.3% of votes were rejected—that is one in 23.

First past the post reduces complexity for voters and for electoral administrators. It makes it easier for the public to express a clear preference, providing strong local accountability. It is also cheaper. For example, the complex system in London requires e-counting—a devastatingly boring count that, last time, cost £9 million.

In our contention, these voting systems are a recipe for confusion and for legislative and administrative complexity. We intend to pursue our manifesto commitment to support first past the post both locally and nationally. I acknowledge that there is disagreement on the matter. I do not believe we need to debate it further now. I respectfully urge that the amendments be withdrawn and that this clause to bring simplicity and clarity to these elections should stand part of the Bill.

Elections Bill

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Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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Sorry? There was a huge collection of different communities. But it is really essential that we engage with these people.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said that she wanted every single vote to count, I could not have agreed more. What we are talking about is ensuring that every single vote is available to be counted, and I hope that I might persuade her to change her mind on this. However, we will wait and see what the Minister says. I look forward to going back to that school, or indeed to any other which might invite me.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the amendments from the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in this group, ask many sensible questions. Perhaps, no question is no more appropriate than that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and we all look forward to the Minister’s answer to that in particular.

The questions in this group are about the cost to taxpayers which may follow from the Bill introducing compulsory photo ID at polling stations. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, we need to know much more about the extra costs to be imposed upon local authorities. The Minister himself was a council leader not very long ago. He will know how local authority finances have been dramatically squeezed in recent years—real-terms cuts are perhaps 40%. Meanwhile, they have also retained the burden of statutory responsibilities, including many connected with social care.

The Government’s impact assessment suggests that making the changes proposed in relation to compulsory photo ID may cost as much as £230 million over 10 years, with a best estimate of £150 million. But the truth is that we do not really know. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, quoted the Association of Electoral Administrators saying that many of these costs were unquantifiable. But the costs of the scheme proposed by the Government are still significantly higher than those of a simpler form of voter identification, as was suggested in the last Conservative manifesto and in the report conducted on behalf of the Conservative Government by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, who sits on their Benches. So the Government are proposing to go much further than in their own manifesto—a point that should be noted—and in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles. But both proposals for compulsory voter ID, with or without photos, seem to me to have a lot of costs that are not necessarily included in the impact assessment, and neither scheme has been shown to be at all necessary in any way.

The Government claim that there is public support for the proposals on compulsory photo ID, but I doubt there would be much support if people knew that the cost over 10 years could be £230 million, or if they understood that voting at polling stations is as safe as it is at present. Perhaps the public would prefer their money to be spent on hundreds more police officers or more teachers, doctors and nurses. The Government spend a great deal of public money on market research, much of it perhaps for their own party benefit. In that research, they should perhaps test this proposition in one of their surveys: should there be compulsory photo ID at polling stations, or police officers, doctors and nurses? I would like to know the answer.

In my view, the Government are simply not getting their priorities right if they are genuinely concerned about electoral integrity. An estimated 9 million people are not on electoral registers, or are incorrectly registered on them, and are therefore unable to vote. If the Government were really planning to spend money on improving the integrity of our electoral system, they would not have withdrawn funding for the voluntary organisation Bite The Ballot. During a debate on this Bill, the Government praised its efforts. Bite The Ballot organised events such as national voter registration week, and it succeeded in getting many more young people registered to vote, at very little cost. But that little cost—a few thousand pounds—was too much for the Government. Perhaps it registered the wrong people—principally young people.

But the Government can spend, or want to spend, hundreds of millions of pounds on unnecessary compulsory photo ID. If it is a question of money, they could save a lot on electoral registration by making the process as automatic as possible, cutting down the cost of paper forms and personal canvassers. They could deal with it on databases. But they do not seem to want to save money if that might allow more of our citizens, especially young people, to be able to vote.

Voter identification has been piloted in only a handful of local authorities—and only in local elections. But local elections often have only half the turnout of general elections, so I fear that the number of staff required at polling stations may have to be doubled if they are to check each voter’s ID, especially if it is photo ID. The staff may need a lot more training and support. Perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, there will be many more arguments in polling stations and more staff needed to resolve them. As he said, there will also have to be a lot of very costly public information about the changes to what the noble Lord, Lord True, often refers to as our “tried and tested” system.

He seems to like our tried and tested system when he opposes any changes that may not favour his party, but he seems quite ready to change the tried and tested system at polling stations, even at great cost, when no such radical change is at all necessary. Perhaps placing a few more police officers on duty at some polling stations might be a cheaper and much more cost-effective way of reassuring people that the voting process is safe, if that needs to be done. Certainly, we do not need compulsory photo ID.

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I do not agree with that. I do not think that is necessary. It is in the government manifesto and electoral fraud is not a victimless crime. I know the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, was very clear that there had been only one case of fraud but the impact of electoral fraud on voters can be very significant. It takes away their right to vote as they want to—whether through intimidation, bribery, impersonating somebody or casting their vote for them—

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness in her flow but the implication is that a vote is taken away. It is not. There is a process in the polling stations by which if you claim that somebody has already taken your vote—usually because the wrong name has been crossed off by one of the polling clerks—a replacement ballot paper, known as a tendered ballot paper, is given to you. There is no theft and no loss of vote. You get an extra vote. We know from the Electoral Commission’s analysis that there were only 1,300 cases out of the 37 million votes cast in the 2019 general election. Most were simple clerical errors. It virtually never happens and if it does, there is a replacement.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, that is if anybody goes back because they have not been intimidated into not going in the first place, I have to say. I respectfully say that this is something that we simply cannot ignore—

Elections Bill

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Debate on whether Clause 18 should stand part of the Bill.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the reason for the Clause 18 stand part debate is that we should not let this important change in legislation pass without some significant scrutiny. The principle of notional expenditure might appear at first to be simple, but it is not quite so simple in the era of massive national party spending.

The original intention of election law concerning notional expenditure was always about making sure that spending limits were not circumvented by donations in kind. Before the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there were limits only on expenditure by appointed election agents, or those they authorise, on behalf of their candidates. These people knew that money might not change hands for notional expenditure, covering things such as the use of a donated office for the campaign HQ or office equipment such as a photocopier, or significant discounts might be applied for their provision.

The value of the notional expenditure—what is effectively donated to the campaign—must be included in the candidate’s expenditure limit. If this was not the case, people supporting candidates could provide offices, staff, leaflets, posters and advertising free of charge to the campaign of their choice, and these materials would not be subject to the limits on candidate expenditure.

The legislation passed in 2000 brought in the concept of national party spending limits to try to create a more level playing field at national level. Before then, the parties understood that spending on a national campaign had to be just that: national spending spread evenly across the whole country, covering things such as newspaper advertising, billboards and party election broadcasts.

However, with a national party spending limit of £19.5 million, the parties no longer feel obliged to spend what they can evenly across the whole country. They have increasingly decided to target their national party spending at marginal seats. This might have brought them into conflict with the law. We have seen what was supposed to be national advertising on billboards and in local newspapers targeted largely at marginal consistencies. The 2000 legislation intended to cap unfair financial advantage nationally, but inadvertently it might have had the opposite effect and accelerated the arms race in party expenditure at elections. Parties have since decided that their national campaigns can produce direct mail, leaflets, Facebook adverts et cetera, targeted largely at marginal constituencies.

The supposed clarification of notional expenditure in Clause 18 is there to say that, from now on, the candidate or the election agent is not responsible for such expenditure if they have not specifically authorised it. This might seem a reasonable principle at first glance, but it means that the costs of materials that might benefit their campaign do not have to be included in the tightly restricted spending limits for candidates in constituencies. National parties can now target their direct mail at specific voters in specific marginal seats. They pay for leaflets for those constituencies, and they pay for their distribution either commercially or by paid volunteers. National campaigns can swamp the efforts of individual candidates to make their case.

When the Conservative Party went over the top in 2015 by paying for the bussing in of hundreds of party workers in marginal seats, employing them to canvass and deliver leaflets, putting them up in hotels and paying for their meals, there was a national outcry, led by “Channel 4 News” and the Daily Mirror, among others. It appeared that the marginal seats that might have brought the Conservative victory had actually been bought.

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, what I am saying is that it will clarify for candidates and agents what is required and what was not very clear at the time of that case.

We have sought input on these measures from the Parliamentary Parties Panel and we are confident that they will bring important clarity to the rules and support compliance. Indeed, Craig Mackinlay, the Member of Parliament for South Thanet, whom we have talked about a number of times, knows better than anyone the deficient nature of the current rules, and he welcomed and praised the clarity which this Bill brings to notional expenditure.

In this clause, we are also making an equivalent amendment to the notional expenditure rules for other types of campaigners, such as political parties and third-party campaigners, to ensure that all the rules are consistent. Together, these changes will bring much-needed reassurance and clarity to candidates and their agents on the rules that apply to notional expenditure for reserved elections. Alongside guidance from the Electoral Commission, with which we are working closely, this measure will support compliance with the rules and ensure that those wishing to participate in public life can feel safe doing so, clear in their legal obligations. It is for this reason that I urge that this clause should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. She mentioned the PACAC report into some of these issues, but without quoting the crucial recommendation, in paragraph 16, which says that

“reform should only be taken forwards on the basis of clear consensus.”

This debate, at the very least, has shown that there is not that consensus. It seems to me that the debate is not about how to account for notional spending but whether to account for some of it at all. We have not really been satisfied that, if there were busloads of people from one party, the costs of the coaches, their hotels, their meals and the leaflets they deliver—all spent in a constituency with the clear intention of promoting a candidate—will appear in the constituency limit for that candidate, which is their proper place. The Bill does not seem to make that plain.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for confirming on behalf of the Labour Party and the Green Party that they do not see this clause as necessary. It seems to add significant confusion, and in my view it is particularly important not to add to confusion about what should be included at the same time as you may increase spending totals nationally. As the noble Baroness said, they may have to rise, but the Government said yesterday, in answer to a Written Question I tabled on 28 February, HL6502, that they may increase in line with inflation. That is inflation since 2000, which is 79% and would take a £19.5 million limit to nearly £36 million. There are more issues to debate on this in the next group of amendments.

Clause 18, as amended, agreed.
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Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord McNicol of West Kilbride) (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendments 25 and 25A appear to be alternatives.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, this debate has shown that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is definitely right that we need guidance on this crucial issue of notional expenditure. Many of us think that we do not necessarily need a change in the law, given that the courts have clarified the existing position and we need further guidance about what those decisions by the Supreme Court and Southwark Crown Court mean in practice for candidates and agents.

I believe that the appropriate body to provide such guidance is the Electoral Commission. That is partly because it can obtain legal advice independent from that of the Government; the commission can obtain advice about the meaning of the law that may be different from the interpretation of the Government of the day. It can advise all parties impartially and fairly. The Government’s view is most likely to coincide entirely with how the party presently in power would like the law to be interpreted, and that is not a good thing in a democracy.

Electoral System (Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee Report)

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Friday 11th March 2022

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the members of the Select Committee are to be congratulated on their report. I am sure that their recommendations benefited from the presence of so many members with substantial experience of election campaigns, including of course my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland, who stood for my party in seven general elections, as well as many local ones. The Motion to take note of the report was very ably moved by his colleague on the Select Committee, my noble friend Lady Suttie, with whom I worked closely in what proved to be the most successful general election campaign that our party has ever fought.

The committee’s work demonstrated the value of looking again at legislation which, with hindsight, had left much room for improvement. At the heart of the issues it considered was the fact that there is no right to vote without being registered to vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, noted, the Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate indicated that between 8.3 million and 9.4 million people in Great Britain who are entitled to vote are not correctly registered, and around 400,000 people in Northern Ireland are in the same position. As he said, the situation may be worse than that.

The Select Committee rightly drew attention to the priorities of improving both accuracy and completeness in the electoral register, but the Government’s response was to sound as though they agreed with the principle while agreeing to do nothing significant about it. When individual electoral registration was introduced, Parliament agreed that complying with the registration process would remain a legal requirement and that failing to comply could result in a fine of up to £1,000. The Government’s response to this report says they believe that registering to vote is no more than a civic duty and claims the Government

“encourages all eligible citizens to do so”.

Perhaps the Minister might tell us later of any example he can find of a legal requirement which is fairly described as simply a civic duty, an entirely voluntary action. Where else can you be fined if you do not do something which is a supposedly voluntary action?

The report takes up the point that I made strongly in my evidence to it. I pointed out:

“Some councils send letters and forms specifically mentioning the possibility of fines if people do not co-operate with the process, whilst others make no mention of it. Whilst prosecutions are very rare, the reference to a legal obligation to comply with the process is very important and makes a difference to the rate of response to such communications.”


Awareness of the possibility of being fined increases significantly the rate of response for forms requesting registration. The committee asked the Government

“to provide greater guidance in this regard”.

If the Government really wanted to see more people registered, they would ensure that the obligations and potential fines are made clear, specific, and prominent in all written communications, not just where an individual electoral registration officer or local council chooses to do so. This is necessary because research conducted by the Electoral Commission showed some years ago that 60% of people think that the electoral registration process is automatic—this is why many people do not reply to communications about it.

The Government do not show much sign of genuine interest in maximising registration. How can I justify saying that? It took four years from when a Minister first agreed with me that it should be possible to include information about registering to vote when young people are notified of their national insurance numbers before the Government acted, and then in a minimal way—four years to add six words to a document letting young people know of a website through which they could find out about voting. And the information on the form about voting is just about the least pressing invitation to register that could be imagined.

I raised the issue of many young people being missing from electoral registers in the recent debate on a Private Member’s Bill about the voting age. In response, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, praised the efforts of the voluntary organisation Bite The Ballot but seemed to be unaware that that organisation had to close more than two years ago. This was because the Government withdrew funding for its excellent initiatives, such as organising a national voter registration week. So, will the Minister say today what the Government will do to restore funding for such initiatives?

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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I am going to let my noble friend the Minister answer all this in detail because I am not a government spokesman on this. I was merely offering my opinion on the timeframe. When we get to the stand part debate, I am going to offer some other opinions about why these statements are useful in the context of regulators.

My concern is to see that these statements are strategic in nature and that means not short term in nature. They should be seen in that context. The timeframe of five years is fine for that, but I am going to leave my noble friend the Minister to respond in more detail to the broader questions that the noble Lord has asked.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, these amendments may lead to some mitigation of the effects of the Government taking control of the strategy and policy of the Electoral Commission if the Bill is passed in its present form. If Clauses 14 and 15 are not taken out of the Bill, as they should be, we can still limit some of the damage by preventing the party in power continually changing the statement in accordance with its own interests.

Amendment 3 would not allow a new statement 12 months after the Act is passed, while Amendment 13 tests how often the Government might seek to change such a statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out, the amendments probe the Government’s intention in relation to the timings and processes of the proposed strategy and policy statement to which the Electoral Commission will be subject. The governing party appears to want to emasculate the role of the independent watchdog.

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Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, I regret that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I was unable to attend the Second Reading debate. At the time I was on an aeroplane returning from work in the United States. However, I have read the full proceedings in Hansard with great care and I feel appropriately informed.

Moreover, some time spent in the United States has also given an added perspective on some of the measures in the Bill, for there is about it a definite odour of the Donald J Trump playbook. There is the whiff of voter suppression in the extra requirements being added for access to the franchise. There is a distinct stench of the politically partisan in the measures that undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. But perhaps the strongest stink arises from changes in the franchise being imposed by the current majority party, without pre-legislative scrutiny or a Speaker’s Conference. This strikes at the foundations of our constitution, written and unwritten.

I predict that in due course, much as the late Enoch Powell predicted, Mr Johnson will be defeated in an election—and then there will be a, perhaps minor but none the less significant, online campaign claiming that the election was stolen or rigged. While it would be unfair to claim that the noble Lord, Lord True, had planted the seeds of such a threat to our democracy, he will have added a little natural fertiliser. In his speech introducing the Bill at Second Reading, he made much of the precautionary principle, and of taking steps to protect the integrity of elections from potential, if as yet hypothetical, threats. He did not, however, extend his precautionary principle to the measures in Clauses 14 and 15 that, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee stated, risk undermining public confidence in electoral outcomes by diminishing the independence of the Electoral Commission, both in perception and in reality.

As the late Lord Hailsham famously observed, this country is governed by an elected dictatorship. A Government with a substantial majority in the other place can do virtually what they please. That is why this House, with its, let us say, peculiar composition, has a particular responsibility to protect the constitution, written and unwritten, against partisan proposals by the governing party. Here, the discussion by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, of statements for regulators gives us a valuable insight, because, in this case, the statement is made by the regulated entity. It is as if one of the broadcasters could have a statement telling Ofcom to what it should have regard. The Secretary of State is a political figure. In the electoral arena, he is a regulated entity. He should not be in a position to provide advice of any sort to the regulator.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said at Second Reading,

“there is a constitutional necessity, in a system of democracy based on universal suffrage, that any electoral commission should be wholly and totally independent”.—[Official Report, 23/2/22; col. 239.]

By rejecting these clauses and affirming the independence of the Electoral Commission, this House will make a vital commitment to free and fair elections.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in considering the Government’s plans to take more direct control of the Electoral Commission, we should go back to considering the consensus that existed when it was established. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, then chaired by the late Lord Neill of Bladen, proposed the creation of an

“independent … Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers”.

Introducing the resulting legislation, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, explained how the commission would

“undertake its key role at the heart of our electoral arrangements”.

He emphasised that

“the commission must be as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements allow, and it must be answerable directly to Parliament and not to Ministers”.

On behalf of the Conservative Opposition in the other place, Mr Robert Walter, then said:

“The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the recommendations of the Neill committee and that we shall support the legislation that implements the report”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/2000; cols. 42-109.]


In this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, introduced the legislation. He said that

“the commission will need to be seen to be scrupulously independent both of the government of the day and of the political parties”.

The consensus about the essential independence of the Electoral Commission was backed on that occasion by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, a greatly respected Member on the Conservative Benches at the time. He said that

“there should be an electoral commission”,

but:

“There must be no possibility of the commissioners being \ As currently drafted the provisions in Part 3 of the Bill are not consistent with the Electoral Commission; cols. 1088-95.]


This principle of the Electoral Commission’s independence from the Government of the day survived five general elections. No previous Government before this one sought to change that principle. So I ask why, if we could not have “Tony’s cronies” overseeing the work of the Electoral Commission, we should then have Michael Gove overseeing it? To have any government Minister of any political party setting the overall strategy and policy for the Electoral Commission effectively ends its independence.

Since the last general election, the Conservative Party has been subjecting the Electoral Commission to undue pressure. In August 2000, the then Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling wrote in the Daily Telegraph that, if the Electoral Commission failed to make changes,

“then the only option would be to abolish it.”

That sounds pretty much like a threat to me. An independent election watchdog should not operate under such threats—not in a democracy.

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Moved by
18: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“Fines for electoral offences
(1) The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010 (S.I. 2010/2860) is amended as follows. (2) In Schedule 1, paragraph 5, for “£20,000” substitute “£500,000, or 5% of the total spend by the organisation or individual being penalised in the election to which the offence relates, whichever is greater”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would allow the Electoral Commission to impose increased fines for electoral offences.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, one of the problems with the Bill is that the Government failed to make any changes at all to their proposals when the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its recent report, Regulating Election Finance. The whole purpose of setting up the CSPL was to meet Sir John Major’s aim of cleaning up the reputation of politics, including political finance. It now seems that the Government want not only to control the watchdog responsible but to make sure that it has no teeth. I believe the Government have a significant conflict of interest in this matter.

The CSPL report recommended that the Electoral Commission should be able to levy increased fines for serious electoral offences. It proposed a comprehensive package of measures to improve enforcement, which included decriminalising some offences and addressing an enforcement gap in the regime covering candidate spending. There are some matters that are best dealt with by regulators such as the Electoral Commission, which must be able to enforce fines, rather than necessarily by the police and criminal courts. As the commission itself says, there could be more proportionate ways for the commission to deal with breaches of political finance law.

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Viscount Younger of Leckie Portrait Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con)
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I have been corrected on two points, and I am glad that the world is full of Greens, I am sure, doing a lot of very good work.

There are over 350 political parties currently registered with the Electoral Commission, and many are predominantly made up of volunteers. While it is vital that the sanctioning regime is effective, it needs to be ensured that such deterrents do not cause a chilling effect on electoral participation and campaigning.

I have more of a general point to make, which I think chimes with the views expressed during this very short debate, following up on the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations. The Government are committed to making sure that elections are secure and fit for the modern age. As part of this, we keep the Electoral Commission’s role, powers and regulation under review regularly to ensure that it is able to discharge its responsibilities effectively and that electoral law can be upheld in the most effective manner.

As part of further work looking at the regulatory framework for elections beyond the Elections Bill, the Government intend to look at all the recommendations of the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, alongside similar reports. These include a forthcoming report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee into the work of the Electoral Commission.

Regarding the question about statistics, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Khan, I will have to write to him about how many times the £20,000 has been levied. However, the fact that he says it has not been used lately suggests that there is not an urgent need to raise it. I have attempted to answer the question on raising the amount. I appreciate the points raised. I am afraid that for this evening, at this late hour, being a Scotsman, it is not £50,000, or even £500,000. It remains at £20,000.

However, for these reasons, I hope that the House will accept my explanations. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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I thank the Minister for his kind remarks at the outset of his reply. I might have hoped that the notes in his folder were still those of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, as opposed to the ones that he read out this evening, since I suspect that they might have been slightly different.

All the debates today have shown that the House overwhelmingly wants to have an election watchdog, and wants it to be independent and effective. The Committee, and the whole House in due course, will have to return to the issue of the role and powers of the Electoral Commission, in particular the report on election finance by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I was surprised that the Government committed just now to looking at those recommendations; they should have been looking at them in time for them to be considered in the passage of this Bill. That might have assisted us all.

However, the hour is now late enough. We will return to these issues in due course so, on that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 18 withdrawn.